April 23, 2014

Robots at your service

Robots are on the march. Most of them work on assembly lines, building cars, making electronic devices and processing food, drugs and chemicals. But robots are spreading beyond the factory - a trend that will accelerate in 2014.

Robots are on the march. Most of them work on assembly lines, building cars, making electronic devices and processing food, drugs and chemicals. These giant machines often operate in cages because of the danger they pose to anyone who gets in their way. But robots are spreading beyond the factory, a trend that will accelerate in 2014.

The situation is akin to the transition from mainframe computers to PCs. Mainframes are big, expensive and centralised systems, like industrial robots today. They are complicated to set up and not easily adapted to new tasks. But now sales of other sorts of robots are taking off. These “service” robots are more like PCs: not as powerful as industrial robots, but more flexible, decentralised systems that make individuals more productive.

In 2011 industrial robots accounted for 86% of the $30 billion robot market, and service robots just 14%, according to the International Federation of Robotics, an industry body. But growth in industrial robots has slowed to 5% a year, whereas sales of service robots are expected to grow by 25-30% for the next few years. These carry out lighter tasks such as picking and packing, cleaning and assisting in surgery.

Service robots are making rapid progress because they are, in effect, an offshoot of the computer industry rather than a form of industrial machinery. They can take advantage of cheap smartphones or tablet computers (often used as controllers) and the emergence of open-source platforms that allow researchers to customise robots for a particular task. Venture-capital firms are piling in to back start-ups developing robots. As the saying goes in Silicon Valley, hardware is the new software.

The poster child for this new breed of robot is Baxter, made by Rethink Robotics, a Boston start-up. Baxter has two red arms and a cartoonish, strikingly photogenic touchscreen “face” which is used to program it. Clever software means Baxter is easier for novices to configure and has more common sense than the average robot: if a conveyor belt bringing it objects to pack into boxes slows down, for example, it does too. Baxter costs $22,000, a fraction of the cost of a typical industrial robot.

Universal Robots, a Danish firm, is another exponent of this new breed. It makes robot arms costing $27,000 that can be quickly taught to perform routine tasks in science labs and workshops.

Other service robots are designed for specific jobs, rather than being jacks-of-all-trades. Millions of Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners have been sold by iRobot, based inMassachusetts. The tug robot made by Aethon delivers medicines and food in hospitals. “Telepresence” robots allow someone to stroll virtually through a distant office by remotely controlling a wheeled robot equipped with a camera, microphone, loudspeaker and screen displaying live video of its pilot’s face. Some telepresence robots, such as one made by Double Robotics of California, are motorised cradles for an iPad—a vivid illustration of how robotics has benefited from advances in mobile computing.

Sit back and relax

Researchers in many countries are developing humanoid robots to act as care assistants for old people. That is still a distant goal. But two other forms of robot are making rapid progress.

The first is the unmanned aerial vehicle or drone, which is essentially a flying robot. Military drones of various sizes have become a defining feature of modern warfare. American regulators should clear the way during 2014 for the civilian use of flying robots in fields such as agriculture, law enforcement and monitoring oil-and-gas installations. New rules are needed, and not just in America (a drone made an unexpected appearance at one of Angela Merkel’s campaign stops in 2013), if flying robots are to fulfil their potential and show that they can do more than just deliver death from the skies.

The second sort of robot to look out for is the robot on wheels, better known as the self-driving car. Some 2014 models will be able to drive themselves in stop-go traffic, steering and maintaining a constant distance from the car in front. Google has built cars capable of handling almost all aspects of driving, though the transition to completely autonomous wheeled robots will be gradual.

The proliferation of robots is easily overlooked because many of them do not conform to the stereotypes of what a robot should look like. But they are already among us, and their numbers will grow in 2014.


From The World In 2014 magazine, © 2013 The Economist Newspaper Limited.  All rights reserved.

Tom Standage: digital editor, The Economist, and author of “Writing on the Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 Years” (Bloomsbury)


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